I read a manifesto recently that described a lot of current SFF as “niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.” I’m sympathetic to this author’s complaints even if I think niche, academic, ideological work is enjoyable for exactly those reasons. This is because I read a lot and have long since succumbed to what Tobias Buckell describes as the chief danger of long-term reviewing in his 2013 post, “The fate of today’s book bloggers.” After a while, you begin to see the same stories again and again and in your search for something new, different, and exciting, your tastes become rather rarefied. But I still long for that “visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun” that drew me to genre in the first place. I just expect it to carry a little something extra as well.
“The Selkie” by David K. Yeh (Lackington’s #6) is a rich, nail-biting story of magical espionage during WWII wrapped up in the language and imagery that Lackington’s always emphasizes. The narrator is a selkie towing a mysterious trunk across the North Sea from Russia to England. The trunk contains the key to the Allies’ victory over the Axis, but the selkie is intercepted and captured by a Nazi ship.
The selkie is a very old and powerful being, but Yeh hints at a world teeming with these, all embroiled in the affairs of humans. What they do is secret and mysterious, the way magic always is, but also the way espionage is. In the selkie’s world of magic and spycraft, the mysterious takes centre stage – humans are present only in the background. He negotiates with Danish ulfhednar and Sami noaidi, fighting for the fate of the world with the same engagement a human might.
Interwoven with the selkie’s struggles are his memories of his witch-wife many hundreds of years earlier, in the time of the Vikings. These are beautifully evocative, the tale of a strong, powerful survivor who not only makes her own fate, but shapes the future of the world as well. The selkie sees her, and himself, in the humans that surround him, like a vein of “wyrd” that runs through us all. These flashbacks aren’t the selkie’s motivation, but rather a way of humanizing him – or perhaps, in showing that the world of human wars is the magical world as well. Coupled with a strong, action-driven plot, this is exactly the kind of substantial page-turner that fantasy should strive to be.
I don’t know that I should describe “Wild Things Got to Go Free” by Heather Clitheroe – (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #170) as “fun” because, in fact, I found it deeply upsetting. But it’s the kind of upsetting that comes with being an emotionally fraught nail-biter, true and heart-wrenching right to its fantastic core. This is the story of Leah, a 9-year-old whose mother goes away one day, as adults in her town often do. Leah doesn’t know where her mother has gone or why, but she isn’t the only one who wants to know – an occupying force of soldiers is determined to find out as well, using any means necessary to get what they want.
Clitheroe’s story works on two levels: as a painful story about parental abandonment and as a tense drama about living under occupation. When Leah’s mother discovers she has to leave, she has some forewarning – something has changed in her and she needs to leave the town to “turn.” She tells Leah that they need to have a “special talk” because there is something special about Leah as well – but as the time approaches, whatever has changed in her mother prevents her from spilling the secret.
Leah is shattered by her mother’s betrayal and can’t accept that her mother will not return for her. As the soldiers’ occupation ramps up and the children need to be hidden from them, Leah can’t stay hidden or be calm. She wants her mother and nothing else. Her sense of abandonment and betrayal is so real it burns, but hanging over it is also an escalating military occupation. Soon after her mother leaves, Leah and her sister are made to stay indoors, and to hide in the cellar if anyone comes calling. Adults speak in hushed tones about what the soldiers want.
When the showdown comes, Clitheroe doesn’t pull a single punch. The action is terrifying, made more so through the lens of children. Loss and destruction leap off the page. The answers, when they come, are as arcane and fantastic as one could ask from fantasy, but everything else is raw, real human trauma. One of the best stories I’ve read this year.
“A Spoke in Fortune’s Wheel” by Brooke Wonders – (The Dark #7) is also probably not standard “fun”, though for fans of weird horror it might be. This very strange retelling of Rumpelstiltskin strays just far enough from the source plot to keep the reader guessing and there are enough clever images and ideas to arouse the imaginations of even the most jaded readers.
In the town of Kille, a generation of children are born with “a supernatural and supremely useful limb.” Our hero Sarasponda has a spinning wheel in place of a head. As her cohort matures and learns to create fantastic things with their extra limbs – the baker’s boy makes magical cookies with his rolling-pin-chin and the blacksmith’s son magical swords with his tong-hand – Sarasponda can’t seem to make anything that lasts with her head-wheel until one day her chest opens up and a tiny man called Rumpelstiltskin struts out.
Rumpelstiltskin is as much or more a baby-stealing horror as he ever is but this Sarasponda has not been locked in a room and forced to spin straw into gold. She wants to learn her special spinning talent, despite the price.
Sarasponda’s character can be a little inconsistent. At the same time that she’s horrified by Rumpelstiltskin and his lessons, she asks for more. Certainly, she pays the price for this knowledge. But rather than turning from it and seeking to stop the little man, the story understands that she is his tool and he is a part of her. The grotesque gifts that come from his part of her are a thing she bears rather than rejects.
But Sarasponda does not despair as much as she bulls through the grisly lessons. Her failure to learn them exactly as Rumpelstiltskin would like her to is her strength, the way she takes the curse and makes it her own. I like this Sarasponda better than the one from the fairy tale, who never really has any autonomy of her own. Here’s a girl willing to lose everything in order to make something all her own. The hardest lessons are sometimes the best ones to learn. But the story’s not preachy – just tidily wrapped up at the end, as fairy tales are.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at http://once-and-future.com/.